Uzbekistan: Internet Under Surveillance
From an IWPR report: By Aziz Kurbanov (RCA No. 461, 17-Aug-06) It was May 2001 when President Islam Karimov proclaimed the “era of the internet” in Uzbekistan. Five years on, however, the picture is grim. In the wake of the Andijan massacre, Uzbekistan is more closed off than ever and the government has taken almost total control of the country’s last source of independent information - the internet. All sites which criticise Uzbekistan have been blocked along with those offering a more positive perspective on the country and its politics. Internet cafes are under surveillance and emails are frequently blocked. “The internet will not be shut down, but it will always be under control,” said a local human rights activist who asked not to be named. A frequent internet user in the city of Fergana told IWPR that the only accessible Uzbek sites are those approved by the authorities, such as UzA and UzReport.com. Independent Russian sites like www.lenta.ru, www.gazeta.ru and www.fergana.ru are blocked along with opposition and religious ones. Recent local victims of government blocking have been Neweurasia – a website hosting a network of blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus and Uzmetronom.org. The editor of Tribune-uz.info decided to suspend operations in early July because of harassment from the authorities. “You can only access prohibited sites through anonymous sites like anonymiser [a web proxy service designed to circumvent censorship efforts], but this is also very risky because all computers are connected to a common network,” said the Fergana source. “ I once went to an internet café to send an email to Tashkent. When I pressed ‘send’ I got the message, ‘This file is being used by other users. You cannot send the message.’ When I told the administrator about this he said, ‘You can’t send anything at the moment.’” Reporters Without Borders, RWB, has named Uzbekistan as one of the world’s 15 internet black holes along with Burma, Belarus and North Korea. It cites cafes in the capital which threaten 5,000 som (four euro) fines for looking at pornographic sites and 10,000 som fines for consulting banned political sites. RWB, which fights for freedom of the press and freedom of expression, says about 350 internet firms provide web access in Uzbekistan, with the majority going through the state-owned ISP UzPak. It works closely with the state security police, NSS, to ensure nothing deemed unsuitable makes it through the net. Anyone who wants to provide internet service must register with the NSS, which issues a list of banned sites and instructions to report anyone that tries to visit them and when. Government figures from 2005 suggest internet users number around 675,000 in Uzbekistan but a regular internet user in Tashkent suggests that the vast majority use the web for computer games. He said he recently visited the Silver internet café in Tashkent, where “of the 22 computers there, only four [were] being used for the internet, while people at the 18 others are playing various games”. At the heart of the problem, according to RWB, is the February 2003 freedom of information law which cites the protection of “moral values of society, national security and the country’s spiritual, cultural and scientific potential” as reasons to restrict traditional media or internet reports. This vague definition leaves plenty of room for interpretation and censorship, RWB points out. And the situation deteriorated even further after the Andijan attacks last year. The government clamped down hard on media following the massacre during which security forces opened fire on crowds of civilian protesters. In the weeks and months that followed, the small number of reporters working for international broadcasters and other news outlets, including IWPR, either stopped working or fled the country. All impartial news has been blacked out since the uprising with the US, Russian and British networks CNN, NTV and BBC cut off. Journalists have also been attacked and imprisoned including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Nosir Zokirov who was sentenced to six months in jail for his reporting of the May 13 storming of Andijan prison. One Uzbek interviewed by IWPR said Karimov has taken these drastic steps out of fear that his time in power is nearly up. “A crisis for Karimov is unavoidable. It could happen any minute,” said Yuldash Achilov, a member of the opposition party Erk who currently lives in Europe. “To keep people in an information blockade are the last actions by Karimov.” Aziz Kurbanov is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor.